Monday, November 28, 2005

Putting aside desire

The man who is making progress has learned from the philosophers that desire
has good things for its object and aversion bad things. He has learned that
peace of mind and serenity can only be attained by a man if he achieves what he
desires and does not fall into what he wants to avoid. Such a man either has rid
himself of desire completely or has put it off to another time....
[Discourses I. 4. 1]

But for the present, totally suppress desire, for if you desire any of the
things that are not up to us, you must be unhappy. [ Encheiridion 2 ]

There are other passages in the Discourses where Epictetus urges us to do away with or at least suspend our desires for the time being. At several places Epictetus recommends that this should be the first priority for the proficient, i.e., the one who wishes to make progress toward a tranquil life. Epictetus believes that frustrated desires & unavailing aversions are the main cause of our unhappiness. We are unhappy in our desires because we desire to have or control the wrong things, things that are innately not in our control or power. This is a constant theme in the Discourses.

Interestingly, neither Epictetus nor Arrian seem to speak directly to the question of how we should go about suppressing or suspending our desires. Desires arise all the time for all sorts of things, most of them very dubious goods. We want a bigger house, a new car, more leisure, a better paying & more prestigious job, a better computer. If we carried around a notebook just to log every desire that occurred to us, we’d be lugging a hefty volume in no time. So how are we supposed to turn off this fountain of desire, at least until we know good desires from bad ones?

As I said, there is no essay in the Discourses entitled “On suppressing desire.” There is no passage I know of that turns directly to instructing us in the delicate art of suppressing desires & aversions. Given the constraints of Stoic psychology, there may be a significant problem here. If we accept that desire is a kind of impulse ( horme) in reaction to an experience that reason/memory has labelled as attractive & choiceworthy, the only way to block this impulse is by withholding assent to the judgment that it is good or choiceworthy. But how do we train our faculty of assent to react negatively to what we recall as a pleasant experience?
There are to be sure many hints in Epictetus & Arrian that we may pursue, but no well-articulated therapy of desire. What sort of a problem is this for Epictetus? What do you think?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Oudeis Oudamou

Do not allow these thoughts to distress you: I shall live unrecognized
and be a nobody everywhere [oudeis oudamou], for if the lack of recognition were an evil, then you could be implicated in something evil through the actions of someone else. But that cannot be the case, no more than you can become involved in something shameful in this way. [ Encheiridion 24, slightly modified ]

As the rest of our text of Encheiridion 24 goes on to explain, receiving honors or recogition is not something in my power or "up to me". So it cannot be a good, nor its absence an evil. Other people may or may not be disposed to recognize my virtues and talents and other fine qualities--to list them all would be tedious. It doesn’t matter. Obscurity is nothing to me. It is enough that I know I have them and I recognize them. There is no possibility of self-delusion here, I'm sure.

I want to draw attention to the translation of Oldfather and Hard and others, who read the second clause as “I shall live without honour.” That translation is too liable to misunderstanding. Living without a personal sense of honour is not what Epictetus is talking about here. He is referring to public honors and recognition. Those externals don’t matter. Very different is whether you feel you are living an honorable & proper life, which is something very important and not up to the judgments of others.

Another textual comment if I may. As scholars of the Encheiridion have long pointed out, our text in some chapters of the Encheiridion plainly has problems. Early editions of the Encheiridion apparently appended related passages from the Discourses to Arrian’s very brief remarks. Subsequent editions managed to conflate Arrian’s text and the related texts from the Discourses. Encheiridion 29 is an undeniable product of this kind of transmission, as I believe is our text of Encheiridion 24. I think I have cited in full the original text of Arrian, and the rest of Encheiridion 24 is material derived from a missing book of the Discourses.
Encheiridion 1

Some things are under our control, others are not. Under our control are belief, determination to act, desire, aversion, and in a word, whatever is our own doing. Not under our control are our body, property, reputation, employment, and in a word, whatever is not our doing.

Forget about the underlying Greek text for a minute and just consider the credibility of these claims as we would understand them in ordinary English. Our immediate reaction is incredulity, is it not? My body is not under my control? Under whose control is it then? My property is not under my control? Who then owns it? How in the devil have you come to this list of things I can and cannot control, philosopher? What kind of research and investigations have you conduct? I know that disease can impair my control of my body. I know the government asserts eminent domain over most of realty. My control is nowhere complete or certain or infallible, but I do try to control some externals with apparently some success. What are you trying to tell me? That I over-estimate my control or its reliability? Well perhaps, but then don’t just say these things are not in my control. Forbear to treat me to your dogmas, if that is what they are, but if you know anything useful about the actual limits of our ability to control things, I am all ears.

What does Epictetus mean by “under our control? The Greek phrase is “eph’ emin”, which could as well be translated “in our power” or “up to us.” It turns out that for Epictetus nothing is eph’ emin unless nothing can prevent or hinder our bringing it about or achieving or acquiring it. Since under some circumstances our control over all externals fails, Epicteus concludes that no externals are in our control. If not in unfailing control, then not in control at all. I don’t think I need to comment on that argument by definition. But I would put one additional question to Epictetus: what makes you think desire and choice and belief are in our control on this absolute standard? You think what you believe and choose and desire are always up to you, and not, for example, sometimes at the mercy of the fragile health of our brain & nervous systems? What is your evidence that this is so?

Several other passages in the Discourses and Fragments repeat this same story without the theology that Arrian’s summary sees fit to delete. See Discourses I.1 and IV. 7, and Fragment 4. A provident God has placed some things in our power and other things beyond our power, we are told there. Does that help, or does it make it even more obvious that we are dealing with (religious) dogma, not scientifically based and sustainable argument?

Now it is the nature of every man to pursue good and avoid
evil, and to regard that man as an enemy and betrayer who deprives him of the former and involves him in the latter, even though he be a brother or a father or a son. For nothing is more closely related to us than the good. It follows that if good and evil lie in externals, there is no affection between father and son, brother and brother, and all the world is everywhere is full of enemies, betrayers, and informers. [ Discourses IV. 5. 30-31 ]

Nothing of the sort follows, Epictetus, and you know it.

If some externals are both good and things for which we compete, sometimes unjustly, then there will be conflict, which we must learn to manage. And if some externals are evils, then we must study to avoid them, and again, there will sometimes be conflict, which we must also manage. But " all the world is everywhere full of enemies" is a symptom of paranoid delusion, not an inference. Epictetus is trying once again to sell us a false dichotomy: either turn your back completely on material, external thing, or prepare to live in constant perpetual conflict with evryone else.

But if a right choice is the only good and a wrong choice the
only evil, what room is there for quarreling or reviling? About what? About something thar is nothing to us? [ ibid]

Right choice and right desire and right belief are vital goods, but do we believe that they are the only goods? Aren't some externals like health & a decent standard of living indispensible for living a life worth living? Health and fitness are not things for which we compete. You may be as healthy & fit as you wish and so may I. Arguably, my having a decent standard of living also does not mean I must oppress and exploit you. Some other external goods are competitive and so we must compete, at least for our fair share. So be it. But let us not pretend that pursuing any externals is recipe for unceasing, implacable conflict with everyone.

[ I follow Robin Hard's translation in the passages above. ]

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Discourses IV. 4

Remember that it is not only a craving for wealth and power that
you servile and subservient to others, but also a desire for solitude and leisure, travel and leisure. It is the value you assign to an external, whatever it is, that makes you subservient to another.

Don’t doubt for a moment the tremedous cost of procuring ex inopia a life of solitude and leisure, wherein you are fully master of your own time. Don’t doubt for a moment the egregious costs of comfortable travel and higher education. But suppose I have been fortunate in my parents and have inherited wealth. The secluded estate in the Tetons is mine for the asking. The private jet awaits my pleasure at the Jackson Hole airport. Whomever I wish as a teacher I can afford to hire. To whom am I subservient for these things, to whom must I sell myself to obtain them (Discourses I.2) ? You who have not been fortunate in your patrimony must surrender 50-60 hours every week to a job you do not esteem but must servilely protect. You are fortunate to claim an hour or two a day for leisure studies, and solitude is for you a black swan.
To be sure, my wealth must defended, but I have men for this too. My wealth has secured for me the solitude and leisure and in general the capacity to live as I choose. Your poverty has denied you these things. But wealth, you say, is not a good and poverty not an evil?

"It is your appropriate use of your wealth, your good choices, not the wealth itself that has given you a good life. Without the wise choices, your wealth would have been an invitation to vice of all sorts and early tragedy."

No, philosopher, actually it was both the wealth and my ability to use it wisely. Without the wealth the ability to use money well would have useless, and I would have been consigned to same servile unhappy life as someone who never had a savings account in his life. The money and the ability to use it were both necessary.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Desiring health and wealth and other externals

I am pressing Epictetus on the issue of whether it is appropriate to desire & pursue some externals such as health and (moderate) wealth and a safe, pleasant physical environment in which to live. This business of needing & wanting externals is not a minor or peripheral issue to Epictetus or other Stoics.
Epictetus and I agree that desire should be directed toward the true good and aversion toward real evil. I am suggesting to Epictetus that he cannot deny that those things are true goods which are indispensable conditions of a good life, and in fact the kind of good life he recommends. The good life, Epictetus often reminds us, is not the life of a statue or an animal. We should aim to fulfill our natural roles as a human being, a spouse, a parent, a friend, a citizen, etc.
But conditions like abject poverty and chronic ill-health & lack of fitness utterly disable us from being able to undertake or sustain these roles in a responsible and reliable fashion. If a man is so poor that he cannot feed and clothe and shelter his family, if he must live in an environment where he cannot protect them or see to their other material needs, if his poor health & fitness makes him a burden to them instead of a provider, then that man cannot fulfill the roles of parent and friend and citizen. He is in fact unsuited to fulfilling any worthwhile roles or living any kind of a life worth living.
So, in failing to desire and pursue and secure certain indispensable externals like health & wealth, I seem to doom myself to a worthless life unfit for any of the roles that Epictetus agrees makes life worth living. How then can I fail to desire or pursue these externals?

“But externals are not in your control, and if you desire things not in our control, you will be hindered and frustrated, and in your disappointment fall prey to the passions like anger and envy which deny you the great good of an untroubled & tranquil mind.” ( See, e.g., Discourses III.2 )
I agree, philosopher, that when we go in pursuit of externals like wealth & fitness, we open the door wide to frustration and failure. Probably we will and eventually we must fail in finding and keeping some of these things. But we have no choice, do we? Unless we wish to be content with an empty life that fulfills none of the proper roles of a human being, we need to pursue and secure some externals. So are we therefore doomed to a troubled and untranquil life as we chase after things we cannot secure? How does this follow?
I would propose to Epictetus that our pursuit of the right externals in the right amounts, though risky and liable to failure & frustration, need not be the cause of the tranquillity-robbing emotions he predicts. Anger and envy and fear need not attend everything we try to secure for ourselves in the world and every lack of success we experience. Failure is inevitable: get used to it! And what is my alternative? Failing to pursue the right externals will absolutely doom me to an unlivable, untranquil, worthless life.
That, in any case, is the argument I would present to Epictetus.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Encheiridion 5

It is not the things themselves that disturb people, but their judgments [ dogmata] about these things. For instance, death is nothing terrible, or else Socrates too would have thought so. But the judgment that death is terrible, that is what is terrible. So whenever we are frustrated or distressed or grieved, let us never blame others, but only ourselves and our judgments.

I append this oft-quoted passage from the Encheiridion to yesterday's post about being in control of and responsible for actions that flow from our judgments.
If we are to credit Plato's Phaedo, Socrates did indeed come to see death not as an evil or terror. But can you and I, without the benefit of the mythology of a happy and just afterlife, imitate Socrates? How can we say "death is not an evil" if it extinguishes a life trying to be productive & virtuous? Can we will ourselves to believe some mythology or philosophy that views death as a good or at least not an evil?

Perhaps we would be better off to avoid the debate over whether death is a good or an evil, and begin by accepting that death is an inevitability and a permanent & immediate possibility of our fragile lives. That judgment need not inspire fear or terror in us, but focusing on it does make it hard to cultivate a joyful and hopeful attitude towards our life. So where does this leave us? Can we base a serene and tranquil attitude [ euroia, in E's terminology ] to the unadorned, undisguised realities of the human condition?

I have no answer to aver. Yes, I agree our judgment about the matter is the critical thing. But it is also hard to guage in all of this how much or how little we are really in control of judgments about death & dying.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Discourses I. 11

One of the most poignant exchanges in the Discourses arises when a man guiltily confesses that he deserted the bedside of his young daughter when she was seriously ill. "I could not bear it", he says, and wonders, half-heartedly, if his conduct might be excusable in the circumstances since it was a very “natural” reaction to what he was confronted with.
Epictetus does not deal harshly with the man, but firmly rejects his wish to find an excuse for his behaviour. Epictetus points out to the man that it was not the circumstances that caused & controlled his behaviour but his judgment [ dogma] about what those circumstances amounted to. The man formed the judgment that it was unbearable to watch his daughter suffer while he stood by powerless. That judgment, not the fact of his daughter’s illness, caused him to flee.
Circumstances are not in our power, but our judgments are. It was in this man’s power to reject the thought that is unbearable to watch his daughter suffer. He could instead have accepted that it was his duty to stay and render whatever help & support he could. Correcting his judgment, he would have corrected his behaviour. But he allowed his fearful judgment to sweep him away. His shameful desertion finds no excuse in the fact that his fearful reaction was "natural".

One of the things that bothers me here is Epictetus’ ultimately dogmatic reply to what is clearly a complex & nuanced problem about human action and responsibility. Epictetus reasons on the basis of the assumption that the man could control the judgment he made. It is Stoic dogma that we can always control our judgments. But does dogma reflect psychological reality?
I would have much preferred Epictetus to inquire with the father whether he thought it was possible for him to have examined and rejected the belief that caused him to flee. The father was clearly inexperienced & unprepared for dealing with this sort of family crisis. In general we don’t expect people to deal courageously with frightening situations for which they have received no training or preparation. We don’t, for example, take a young man with no preparation and training and drop him in the middle of a horrific battle. People are being killed and horribly wounded all around him, but we tell him, “You must stand fast and not be afraid. Fear is just a judgment and you can control your judgments.”
A man who adopts the role of parent, we feel, should anticipate that illness and tragedy will strike his family. He should examine himself honestly and assess whether he can cope such situations. If he thinks he may not be equal to such situations, he should not assume the role of a parent.
Too late, in the middle of a crisis to say to someone unprepared and unsuited to crises, “control your thoughts and fears.” He can’t.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Diogenes Laertius VII. 102-03 ( Zeno)

Goods comprise the virtues of prudence, justice, courage, temperance, and the rest. The opposites of these are evils, namely, folly, injustice, and the others. Neutral, that is, neither good nor evil, are those things which neither benefit nor harm a man. These include life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, fame, noble birth and also their opposites,….They [the Stoics] say that such things as these are not in themselves goods, but are morally indifferent, falling under the subdivision of things preferred. For…wealth and health do no more benefit than injury, and therefore neither is a good. Further they say that nothing is good of which both good and bad use can be made. But both good and bad use can be made of wealth and health. Therefore they are not goods.

I take this statement of the Stoic position, for the sake of its succinctness, from Diogenes Laertius’ epitome of Stoic Ethics appended to his life of Zeno. I have been examining in previous posts the anti-Stoic argument that the absence of wealth and health are evils because they do us real harm. They harm us by either rendering us incapable of assuming the natural roles of parent, friend, citizen, etc, or , if we’ve already assumed those roles, forcing into shameful derelictions when we lack the means or ability to meet our responsibilities. Poverty is an evil because it renders us morally deficient or derelict with respect to these roles. ( A destitute person can of course decline all these roles, but then what sort of life remains? )

The second argument in the passage from DL says health & wealth aren’t goods because they can be used for good or bad purposes. But this is not credible test of what is good or bad because courage and temperance and self-discipline are equally useful to a bad man. Virtually any excellence can be misused. It would follow on this test that virtues are not goods.

A much better test asks whether the external in question is indispensable to fulfilling the duties & obligations we have chosen ( or aspire to ) . Health and moderate wealth, I fear, are indispensable to most of our natural roles. Those externals that we must have to live a valuable, responsible life and avoid dereliction seems to me to be goods.

Am I suited to the calling of an itinerant Cynic?

I think it was one of the disappointments of Epictetus’ life that he did not consider himself fit for the itinerant, ascetic life of a Cynic preacher. The Cynic was supposed to be a kind of living, walking advertisement for the Stoic-Cynic ideal of a virtuous & happy life independent of the “slavery” of all material possessions and conventional roles in society.
That Epictetus thought a Cynic’s calling one of the noblest is evident from his fulsome [sic] praise of that life in passages such as Discourses III. 22. As you read through that long essay, think about why Epictetus considered himself disqualified from that "heroic" calling and settled for the life of a schoolmaster.

I speculate that one of the key considerations was Epictetus’ lameness. The Cynic, he confesses ( 86-89), has need of a body that radiates health & fitness. If he presents as someone struggling with physical problems, his body belies his claim that his lifestyle is healthy & robust. We pity consumptives and emaciated beggars rather than seek to imitate them.
It is interesting that Epictetus concedes that an external like a healthy & fit body is a requirement for the Cynic’s role. Suppose I find myself attracted to the Cynic’s calling, but I am not naturally a picture of robust health & fitness. Yet with a proper diet and training and rigorous exercise I can build myself up and present well. Should I not then earnestly pursue those externals , even though they are not, strictly speaking, something in my power? And is it really in the lap of the gods or chance whether I shall become healthy & very fit?

"But you may fail to achieve health & fitness despite your best efforts, and then you will be frustrated and unhappy." Indeed I may. Any useful role that I wish to assume in society seems to require that I acquire & master externals, and doing so is always a perilous and uncertain course. But what is the alternative? if I wish to fulfill some role in society, how can I avoid pursuing the externals that are requisite? Even the wandering Cynic needs a healthy body.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Epictetus, gadfly of Rome

One of the most entertaining passages in the Discourses describes what happened when Epictetus decided to play Socrates among the Romans. The text is Discouses II.12, 17-25.

To set the scene, imagine Epictetus, a young freed slave of Asian Greek heritage, loitering in the Forum and trying to engage Romans of consular rank in discussion about whether they are neglecting the care of their souls. Farce, or tragedy, was the only possible outcome.

At first, says Epictetus, speaking of one encounter, things seemed to be going well. The wealthy consular listened to him and responded to his questions. But then, when we got to the meat of the matter and I suggested to him that he might be neglecting the care of his soul, the mood changed, and the patrician said to me, “Pray, sir, what business is this of yours?” And when I persisted with him, he raised his hand and began to box my ears.
Meeting with such difficulties, confesses Epictetus, I began to be less keen on pursuing this sort of inquiry among the Romans.

I am a little surprised that Epictetus was naïve enough to try this. If the young Domitian was one of those whom he accosted, some subsequent history finds an easy explanation.
But what genuinely puzzles me is why Epictetus thought Socratic elenchos would be successful amongst the Romans when it had been so spectacularly and universally unavailing in the hands of the master. Whom did Socrates ever make wiser or better by cross-questioning him?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Discouses I. 12, 32-34

Why do you not give thanks to the gods that they…have rendered you accountable only for what is your control? They have discharged from all accountability for parents and for your brothers, for your body and property and life & death. For what have they made you accountable? For what is alone in your power, the proper reaction to what you experience.

Remember the narrow compass for Epictetus of what it in my power. Only what I wish for and believe and choose are in my power. So I am responsible, it seems, only for coming to desire the right things and coming to believe the right things and making the right choices.

But suppose I have assumed the role of a parent and my daughter falls ill. One day a doctor calls me up and says “your daughter needs an expensive medical treatment and you are not insured. Can you raise $25,000? Otherwise she may become permanently handicapped.”
What is the right choice here?
I hear the father saying “I would gladly write that check if I could, doctor, but, you see, I’m poor and we don’t even have $500 in the bank. Oh yes, I could have gone to work for that insurance company and gotten good health insurance and a decent salary, but I’m a philosopher, you see, not a clerk.”

Do we excuse the father’s dereliction here? He would make the right choice if he could. But he can’t, because he lacks the resources to look after his family. He could have pursued externals like insurance and savings, but he didn’t, and because he didn’t, he is now not in a position to help his daughter. He would save her if he could, but doesn't that seems a pathetic excuse? He can’t because he failed to pursue & secure resources adequate to address his family’s medical needs. He was responsible for doing so.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The door is open.

This is one of Epictetus’ favorite retorts to someone who complains that he has suffered too many misfortunes and his life is no longer worth living. If that is your judgment, says Epictetus bluntly, then stop living. But whatever you choose to do, stop whining. Choose to live and endure what must be endured, or choose to die.

Fair enough, but we should also remember that there are people living horrific lives that they wish to end but cannot. I’m thinking of people permanently paralyzed by strokes and accidents. Some of these people quite reasonably wish to die but cannot elect to do so, because they no longer have the means to kill themselves. The decision whether they shall be permitted to die has escheated to relatives and physicians and insurance companies, each with their own agendas. So for these people at least Epictetus’ advice is not very useful. The door was open, but now it has slammed shut.

( Consider: Were these people not harmed when they were deprived of this fundamental choice? And is not what harms us an evil? )

But let me ask Epictetus another question about his "the door is open" recommendation. Is being dead supposed to be something good? It may be a better choice than continuing to live a horrible life, but it is something good? I thought the Stoic view was that living virtuously, or at least choosing to live virtuously, was the greatest good? If that is so, consider this. Suppose we take a talented young person who aspires to a worthwhile career, a family, a position of civic and community leadership—all the roles you Stoics commend--and then frustrate all of these aspirations by inflicting dire poverty or ill-health or unjust imprisonment upon him. Denying him the possibility of pursuing the good life he intends, we also deny him the possibilty of electing or choosing such a life. We cannot choose what we know is impossible for us.

“But you have not harmed his faculty of choice,” replies Epictetus. I think I have. If there is nothing good left to choose, what good is choice? How can I make a good choice? Have I not deprived him of possibility of choosing to pursue a worthwhile life? Have I not greviously harmed him, ruining what could have been a good life, by inflicting upon the evils of poverty or confinement or disabling ill health?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Encheiridion 41

It is a mark of the talentless that they devote much of their time to matters pertaining to the body. They exercise a great deal, they eat and drink a lot, they spend a lot of time in the bathroom, or else engaging in sex. In truth, these are things that should be done in passing, and we should turn our attention completely to the care of our souls.

Once again we are told that the pursuit of externals like health & fitness are unimportant matters, to be granted attention only grudgingly. Elsewhere Epictetus is a little more accommodating to health and fitness when he acknowledges that some special roles, such as that of the Cynic preacher, absolutely require a healthy, fit body to sell the Cynic's gospel.

But consider: isn't it a fact that health and fitness are pretty universal requirements of most of the roles we wish to undertake in our life? An unfit, unhealthy person is simply unable to take up many occupations or engage in many activities. The civic duties he can perform are limited. Even his domestic capacities are limited. And the fiction of a healthy mind in an unhealthy body is fallacy of an antiquated, scientifically untenable mind-body dualism. We know that the mind is in no way independent of the decline & diseases of the body.

So it would seem that health & fitness are necessary conditions of the virtuous human life Epictetus recommends, and not incidentals or adornments. We must earnestly pursue these externals if we are to claim a life worth living and not become derelict in the duties & roles we try to undertake.

That is the argument I would return to Epictetus with a recommendation: put down the damn book on syllogisms, philosopher, and get up and go to the gym.

Friday, November 11, 2005

One of the themes I wish to pursue here is the compatibility of Epictetus' disvaluing of externals with his insistence that we take on and fulfill the roles appropriate to us given our human nature and our individual characters.

Many discussions in the Discourses touch on this issue. For example, III.26, entitled "To those who are afraid of want." Suppose a man has undertaken the natural role of a parent and finds himself unable to provide proper food & housing for his family. I can endure inflicting hunger upon myself, Epictetus imagines him worrying, '" but my family too will starve!" Epictetus' response begins, outrageously, with "Well, what of it?" Poverty & hunger & destitution are not evils. Don't worry about it! Read the astonishingly dogmatic reply at III.26, 4-7.

The obvious problem is that the man who willingly undertook to be a husband & parent undertook to provide for his family's welfare. He pledged not to allow them to fall into destitution. To allow them to die for want of necessities seems egregiously derelict. Undertaking to be spouse & parent, he accepted the duty of providing these things for his family, and so of pursuing them. He has a duty to be focused on obtaining these externals. Since his family needs food & shelter & medical care, our parent needs to make money that can purchase them. Can we pretend that for such a man failing to pursue a reasonable amount of money is not an evil?

The world is different if one chooses to live the life of an anchorite ( or a wandering cynic), rejecting all the conventional roles of family and citizenship and occupation. No responsibilities attend such a life. But if one assumes any of the natural roles, misprizing externals is no longer an option. It is now shameful & disgraceful to neglect the externals like money and health and reputation that are essential to fulfilling those roles.

This is the kind of argument I would like to put to Epictetus and see what reply we would make. ( I know there are dogmatic grounds on which Stoics could reply here, but I seek a credible answer.)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Discourse II.2 " On Tranquillity"

Consider this, you who are about to apear in court [ or in any other arena of competition & conflict ], what do you wish to preserve and in what do wish to succeed? If you wish to keep your choices aligned with nature,..and if you wish to preserve what is in your power,...and if you wish to be a man of honor & trust, who can prevent you?...But if you wish to preserve your externals as well, your body or property or reputation, I advise you to make every kind of preparation...

My editing of Discourses II.2. 1-14 is somewhat draconic , so reread the complete text as you consider this. The question I'd like to pose is this: Why do we bother to engage in business & legal disputes & other contests at all? Our purpose must be to secure or defend some externals ( such as property), things thought to be good or at least choiceworthy. Otherwise, if nothing of value is at stake, why don't we just avoid all such entanglements and focus solely on improving our inner life?

Acquiring or preserving externals, then, is the reason why we do much of what we do. We clearly value externals such as life and health and reputation. Is where we go wrong, on the Stoic view, not in valuing but in overvaluing externals? Is our error to be wish to preserve some externals above all or at all costs?

We might wish to ascribe this more reasonable view to Epictetus, but the Greek in this passage says literally " if you wish to preserve externals as well [KAI TA EKTOS]".

If you wish to be crucified, just be patient and the cross will come to you.

Discourses II.2, "On Tranquillity," has several arguments worth exploring, but this striking admonition comes near the end as Epictetus warns us to avoid needlessly provoking the powers that be. If you wish to elicit a fair or sympathetic response from anyone, but especially from those with power, do not make a show of informing them that you do not care what decisions they make. You are encouraging & provoking an unfair and unsympathetic response with such lack of respect.

If Socrates wanted to elicit a just verdict from his jury, we could not have spoken more ill-advisedly. Epictetus implies that Socrates' character required him to speak as he did, but that "apology" is very hard to understand. Reread the Apology and especially Scrates' timesis speech. For whatever reason, it seems that Socrates was impatient for the cross to come to him.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Encheiridion 37

If you take on a role that is beyond your capacities, you will not only disgrace yourself in that role, but neglect the role you were capable of fulfilling.

Epictetus has many important things to say about the roles that belong to us by nature & by choice. But suppose we begin, as good Stoics should, by considering whether a given role is "up to us" or in our power. Not just the choice of it, but the ability to carry out the tasks & obligations it involves. Something is in our power for Epictetus, recall, only if nothing can hinder or prevent us from realizing it.

Consider then our roles as a parent or a neighbor or a citizen or teacher. Can nothing prevent or frustrate us from fulfilling these roles? Can nothing deprive us entirely of these roles, and, in their place, inflict upon us other roles we would study to avoid? Aren't our roles & relationships in fact externals, and in consequence, ultimately matters of indifference?

"Yes, but preferred indifferents. Choiceworthy things as things go in the realm of externals." The first problem with this answer is that it leave me unmotivated to essay some of these arduous roles & responsibilities if what I'm pursuing is not even a good. Why undertake the struggles of parenting or playing the good citizen? Now if the answer to this question is that I should undertake those roles that God wishes and has planned for me to undertake, the discussion comes to halt in different views of human freedom.

Monday, November 07, 2005

What do I care, said Epictetus, whether everything is composed of atoms or indivisibles or fire & earth? Is it not enough to study the nature of good & evil, the limits of our desires & aversions, and also of our impulses to act and avoid, and, employing these as rules, to direct the affairs of our life and dismiss the things that are beyond us?

Stobaeus II. 1, 31 ( Fragment 1, Schenkl )

Epictetus is not in fact as contemptuous of physics as this sounds, but he clearly believes that the most important questions, about how we should lead our lives, do not depend our scientific conjectures of the world.

But suppose we recast his challenge in terms of the modern biological sciences: "what do I care about how a human being comes to be from its genome? Or about what chemistry & neurophysiology underlie the emotions and choices and beliefs that our brains create? Can we still dismiss scientific knowledge of this sort as irrelevant to how we should guide the course of our life?" ( This is unfair if pressed as a criticism of Epictetus' dismissal of physical speculation. He has no experience of scientific inquiry as we know it. )

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Discourses III. 15

“ Do not act like a child—playing at being a philosopher today, a taxman tomorrow, then a rhetorician, then a judge. These roles do not go together. In the end you must be just one person, either good or bad. You must labor to improve either the part of your mind that directs you or your externals. You must work hard on either the inner man or external things. You must play the role of the philosopher or of the ordinary man.”

Elsewhere Epictetus invokes the striking image of the Janus, asking us how it is possible to make progress trying to face in two directions at the same time. Either we must focus on and attend solely to externals, or we must give our full attention to our inner life. It is impossible to do both. This theme is pervasive in the Discourses.

One problem is that this kind of either/or extremism seems to fly directly in the face of our experience of life. Happiness, many would argue, lies precisely in neglecting neither our external situation nor our inner life, and in making tandem progress in both areas. What could we say to Epictetus to persuade him that our inner and outer lives are not separate mutually exclusive devotions?

Agrippinus was a man of this sort, said Epictetus, that when any
hardship befell him, he would compose something commending it. If he had a fever, then something on fever. If a bad reputation,
then something on bad repuation. And if exiled, then something commending exile. Once, as he was about to dine, a messenger brought him word that Nero had ordered him into exile. Well then, he said, we shall enjoy our lunch in Aricia.
Stobaeus III.7,16-- Fragment 21 (Schenkl) ]

Agrippinus was Roman and a Stoic of considerable personal importance to Epicteteus. Here, as in several passages of the Discourses, he uses the example of Agrippinus to illustrate and recommend the virtue of accepting the roles that fate or circumstance assign us. If we fall ill, we acquire the role or identity of a sick man. If we are driven into exile, we acquire the role of an exile or refugee. If a natural disaster or personal tragedy befalls us, we become victims of these misfortunes. Our choice is not whether or not to accept these roles--they have already befallen us-- but how we shall accept them, well or badly. Agrippinus' example is of someone who is determined to accept & play these roles as well as one can.

Think about the choice we would face in similar situation. Is Aggrippinus' example something we should study to imitate?

"But Aggrippinus & Epictetus do more than recommend that we just accept our arduous roles, they tell us to embrace & praise them. And they do so because they believe we live in universe controlled by a rational, benevolent intelligence who intends the best for us. God is not careless with our well-being. So whatever befalls us is ultimately for our own good. They believe, moreover, that illness and exile and personal tragedies are not evils. Only bad judgments and decisions and beliefs are really evil".

What then if we cannot follow these Stoics in their benign view of our universe and in their rejection of any evil residing in externals. Does it follow that Agrippinus' example is groundless and misguided?